We’re now arrived at the point in a season where pressure and the resulting probabilities can shift markedly from one day to the next, depending on the schedule and the order in which teams play. On Monday morning, these two sides were preparing for a match they dare not lose. A few hours later, it had been upgraded to a must-win, season-defining clash.
Victories for Gillingham, Millwall, Bradford and Barnsley leave both now walking a tightrope. Separated only by goal difference in 12th and 13th, defeat for either will almost certainly guarantee another season in League One. And you can instantly discount the draw as a value proposition at 12/5, a paltry point apiece leaves them both needing snookers.
With only seven games remaining after this, it’s not just the eight or nine-point gap to sixth-placed Bradford that would present a problem, but the fact that six other competing teams must be usurped in the process. Indeed, one of that chasing pack, Barnsley, are currently ranked as the best team in the division on my 16-match ratings with a staggering 67 per cent shot ratio.
So ultimately, this game arguably boils down to a comparative psychological assessment. On whom does the pressure weigh heaviest, and how well-equipped is either side to deal with what’s at stake? In response to both questions, I’m inclined to side with the hosts at 2/1, a view reinforced by their respective shot data.
In terms of pressure, Sheffield United are clearly the team falling way below expectations. The Blades have been stuck at this level for five years now, reaching the play-offs in three of the previous four campaigns, and they were 5/1 favourites for the title last August. Given Nigel Adkins’ track record at this level, their season has been a barely-acknowledged disaster.
In trying to change perceptions at Bramall Lane, Adkins is fighting a losing battle. His managerial approach is almost entirely constructed in the realms of positive thinking, uniting people in pursuit of a common goal and convincing them that something special is about to happen. But in Yorkshire, that happy-clappy stuff doesn’t wash. Results have to come first.
In Southend’s case, a mid-table finish isn’t bad going for a team promoted last season, and any pressure they might have felt coming into this game was eased by Phil Brown publicly dismissing their prospects of a top-six finish in the aftermath of Friday’s 4-1 defeat at Rochdale. However, driven by memory of their Wembley heroics last year, the players won’t be throwing in the towel just yet, and Brown knows it.
My 24-match ratings make Southend favourites by 0.16 goals - a 6/4 shot in fixed odds terms - which by standard conversion means they should be no bigger than 9/2 to land the -1 handicap. Given the make-or-break nature of this game, it’s quite conceivable that the team who gets their nose in front first goes on to win comfortably.
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system